Posts from the Derek’s Reality Category

peninsula 02 03
When I get this book published I’m throwing a party like no other, and if you find me a literary agent, you can have the first stab at the cheesiest of cheese platters. (I’ve contacted about 40 agents so far and am still looking.) Here’s the beginning of my memoir, folks, the story of my first year of teaching. Thank you for reading!

Excerpted from “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After Class, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.”

Sept. 1

I stare at the outfit on the bed: brown khakis and a white dress shirt. Here is a headless, hand-less, foot-less teacher from Target. I am twenty-two, and I’m here because I stuttered as a child and fell in love with books as a way to avoid interacting with my peers. In fourth grade I got detention for reading No Coins, Please during math. The teacher put my name on the board and forced me to skip recess and stay inside under his supervision and read without interruption. As a teen I fell in love with writing because journaling on paper and inventing stories on a computer and manipulating line breaks in poems gave me spaces I could navigate better than the hallways and locker rooms at school. By ninth grade I had so much poetry on our family’s shared computer my mom organized the documents into folders and deleted some of the files along the way. When I searched for “KEEP OUT,” “KEEP OUT 2,” and “KEEP OUT FINAL” and couldn’t find them, I ran to my bedroom, laid on my bed, and clutched the second book in Maya Angelou’s autobiographical series.

“I didn’t delete anything,” my mom said through my closed bedroom door. “I only hit ‘enter.’”

If my mom had read the KEEP OUT files, she knew about the girl who walked on picket fences at night and the boy who cauterized his tongue with a kitchen knife. She knew about “Dark Eyed Angel,” the three-part poem I planned to read for my Valedictorian speech at my high school graduation commencement ceremony.

How could she understand?

She would never understand the symbolism of the weather in my poetry. She would never understand the connection between the states of my characters’ souls and my middle-class upbringing. She would never understand my love for African-American women’s literature.

In college I declared an English major. Shortly after sharing the news with my family, my mother convinced me sonnets weren’t a solid post-graduation career plan and suggested I look into the profession of teaching. I recalled my favorite teachers – the linguistics professor who tapped the linoleum with his bike cleats when he made a point, the junior English teacher who drummed her nails on the computer monitor as she entered grades, the third grade teacher who wore strawberry ice cream cone earrings – and thought, “I could do that.” I recalled discussing glottal and fricative consonants on a couch in Dr. VanderStaay’s living room after our class decided to end the quarter with lasagna with his family. I remembered feeling a small pulse of pride when Ms. DiBartolo pulled me aside and said I wrote metaphors that made sense on both sides of the comparison, as if I were one of the orange stripes in the mostly grey public school carpet beneath me feet. I remembered asking Mrs. Steele if I could lick her ears.

I wanted to be those people.

Starting tomorrow, I am a high school English teacher. Soon I’ll teach paragraphs and assign essays. I’ll write questions in the margins of students’ work and facilitate spirited conversations about big ideas. Maybe my ninth grade students will remember my assignments the way I remember dissecting owl scat pellets in fifth grade and identifying leaves in seventh grade, with fondness. Maybe they’ll say my assignments are stupid.

I know I’m supposed to say “I didn’t get into teaching to have an audience, to perform or to entertain,” but this journal is the KEEP OUT file of my first year so… my students are going to love me. Mr. Smith is magic, they will say. He gets us to do what we don’t want to do.

I try on the brown pants and white shirt with my brown Rockport shoes. I go to the bathroom and stand on the toilet seat so I can see myself in the mirror. My eyebrows are dark like my father’s, my forehead high like my mother’s. Look at those brown shoes. Look at those eyes. You checkin’ me out? I am your teacher. You are not checking me out.

I’m about to teach 9th grade English to one hundred and twenty freshmen and advise the monthly newspaper at the same school where I student taught. Part of me feels like I’m already sitting at my classroom desk, hands folded on the keyboard, head cocked to the chatter of students gathering outside the door. I see myself reaching up to adjust my collar, occasionally pulling a pencil from my mug of sharp Dixon Ticonderoga No. 2s and blowing on the tip. I place the pencil back in the mug.

The room is ready. Last week I scrubbed the windows and dusted the trim. I threw out stacks of faded construction paper and handouts on Aristotle’s The Poetics (“The tragic character aims for a bull’s eye…”) leftover from the teacher before. I arranged the desks in two concentric semi-circles, stomping around to test the portable classroom’s floor. I hung three WHY? WHY? WHY? signs above the whiteboard, an upside-down world map by the door, and Christmas lights along the windows. I put a lamp on a cabinet and mounted two fake video cameras in the back corners. I opened a door along a cracked wall and peered into Earl Beyer’s neighboring classroom and saw oversized maps of the Pacific Northwest and an agenda for the first day of school and knew my room needed something related to English.

“You can use these strategies anywhere,” I said to the concentric circles of empty desks three hours later, sweeping my hands across a homemade, floor-to-ceiling reading strategies poster, “no matter what text you’re studying. Fahrenheit 451 or a football game, Romeo and Juliet or reality TV. They’re all worthy of our analysis, and these skills will help.

“Why do we need to ‘track important information’ and ‘make inferences’?” I continued. “Can anyone say?” I provided appropriate wait-time.

“Okay. To spark epiphanies. And why do we need epiphanies? To make our lives rich with meaning, if we’re lucky. So who wants to go forth, read literature, and make meaning?”

My imaginary students raised their hands.

What will happen tomorrow? I doubt the Literacy Revolution will happen in a day – I’m not naïve – but I can’t help having secret fantasies. The army of volunteers ready and willing to read and engage with literature is a new dream. One recurrent fantasy from this summer is that the first day of school will be full of joyful, celebratory noise. Pompoms and foam fingers in hand, students will cheer for the announcement of each of my unit titles – “Greek Mythology and the Odyssey”? Greek Mythology and the Odyssey! “Romeo & Juliet”? Romeo and Juliet! – while bikini-clad women adorned with “Language Arts” placards move about my classroom in slow, sensuous circles, and when the bell rings I light a confetti canon.

Students may not cheer for my unit titles. Students might throw paper airplanes or try to bring portable stereos to class, or not sit down when I ask. Students will judge me. This is the teacher who wants to be my friend. This is the teacher who plays games. This is the teacher who is crazy about his marker sets. This is the teacher who needs help with AV cords. This is the teacher who won’t let me sleep. This is the teacher who wants to inspire me. That’s what students do on the first day, judge.

I have seven hours.

I should sleep, and I’m standing on the toilet.

peninsula 02 03
On Wednesday I’ll share the first chapter of my memoir “Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom: Spirited Conversations About Big Ideas, Witty Banter After Class, and Other Rookie-Teacher Dreams.” I would LOVE for you to read it! Then find me a literary agent. Details below.

Mr. Smith is not your average teacher. He smokes cigarettes confiscated from students, serves fresh tea to a perpetually tardy boy, and when a young woman catches him wearing pajamas and reading Rolling Stone in Target, that becomes the topic for class discussion the next day.

Welcome to Derek Smith’s journal of his first year teaching English at a public high school. With relentless momentum and self-effacing honesty, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom tells a hilarious and touching tale that romps though the education of one young man and 120 first-years in a run-down portable on the edge of campus. Smith, whose life is as fragmented and frantic as his students, skips and trips through a year in which he confronts sly-eyed rats, leaky ceiling tiles, misbehaving students, and one outlandish principal.

Chronicling both the sweep of American education and small successes of life and learning, Mr. Smith and His Magic Classroom puts breath and bones on one of our nearly universal experiences: high school. LouAnne Johnson, bestselling author of Dangerous Minds, writes that Smith “has the soul of a poet, the wit of a stand-up comic, and the makings of an unforgettable teacher.” Bret Lott, bestselling author of Jewel, calls it “a sharp and funny and brutally honest book that has at its core a kind of shape-shifting elegance—it is at once a terror-ride through that first year of teaching and a nuanced homage… the result is a beautiful and funny story.”

The manuscript (49,000 words) is complete. A more formal proposal—including information about format and deliverables, primary and secondary markets, chapter summaries, competitive works, and endorsements—is available.

bitch pleeze
On the phone with an admin at a Utah high school, recommending my student teacher for a job / complimenting his work with our diverse population, and the admin asks, “At a low-income school? How is he with rigor? Our school is high-achieving…”


I understand. Our sophomores and juniors take the PSAT and SAT for free. Our talent show sells out. Our culinary students provide hors d’oeuvres for the Seattle International Film Festival, our student journalists produce professional publications, and our choir writes original compositions for graduation. Next week our annual multicultural mash-up takes over. Wanna come? Our students hold doors for visitors, so they’ll definitely hold one for you. You and I can go to ping-pong or anime club after school, and track practice some time after that. We’ll sit on the bleachers and watch our 4 x 400 m sprinters run circles around your racist logic…


Letter to student teacher

We’re far enough into the year to see the end of student teaching for you, but can I say? I continue to struggle. I feel at war with fourth period. So many students in fourth period have problems from the news: illiteracy, apathy, goldfish memories, hummingbird focus… I asked to see Yourhigness’ assignment the other day, but he wouldn’t show me the paper. At first he was preoccupied eating a carton of macaroni salad and egg rolls over the corner garbage can, but when he got to his seat he still wouldn’t show me. He covered the paper with his arms. “Part of my job is to monitor your writing,” I said. He held the paper up and said, “I’ll read it out loud.” After two or three sentences of reading, he looked me in the eye and kept talking as if the words on the page had slid off the edge and were dangling in the air between us. “Are you reading?” I interrupted. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m reading.”

I’m writing from a Saturday class I have to take to keep my Career & Technical Education Certificate. (Journalism is cross-credited so I need both CTE and English endorsements.) I’m trying to pay attention to the instructor but keep thinking about the students we share, especially Yourhighness and Cordonte. I love that you took time during 4th period to talk one-on-one with Yourhighness and answer his questions about college: where you went, how to get in, the cost. Forging relationships like this will make your teaching more powerful and our students’ learning more meaningful, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here: spend some time focusing on what you want to know.

My teacher just said, “Sometimes I think I should go back to teaching high school and relax.” Ha! After he told us about a Hawaiian vacation. Other than this once-a-month class, what else is he doing? Lugging elk meat through the North Cascades? I’m 20% of the students here. It’s Saturday. How did I get in The Breakfast Club?

Anyway, onto your questions—starting with the easiest and ending with the hardest.


Letter to student teacher
What are some of the best methods for communicating with parents? What are some good ways for a teacher to relate to students and develop camaraderie? What do teachers gain from professional development?

A new teacher I know asked these questions. Tomorrow on Magical Teaching, I answer them honestly.


Karen Adams Severe, my Uncle Ron’s first wife, embroidered this crewel. My mom kept it displayed throughout our house growing up, and I keep it above the whiteboard in my classroom now. Every time I see it, I think of a few lines from a great Susan Kinsolving poem: “Trust that thirty thousand sword- / fish will never near a ship, that far / from cameras or cars elephant herds live / long elephant lives.”

When I moved into the classroom I’m in now, I found boxes of handouts with prescriptive instructions for writing essays: this essay should have a certain number of paragraphs, and each paragraph should have a certain number of sentences, and each sentence should sound exactly this particular way. No room for creativity or growth. Where were the wild animals in windy canyons? Must we tag every sentient being, every sentence?

Over the last five years I’ve come to understand how students who do not know how to think coherently can benefit from handouts like these: some people learning to build coherent thoughts by working inside someone else’s scaffolding. The teacher provides the pieces and the student assembles them. I try to remember it shouldn’t all be construction. Sometimes growth happens in the wild, and to love something is to give it room enough to grow.

(Derek Smith)

Hello! –

Sorry I kept your questions in the parking lot so long. I wanted to give them the time and consideration they deserve.

I’ll try to avoid the education-ese, though I’m sure some floobie joobie has snuck into my professional lexicon when I wasn’t actively rebuffing it. So if your education program didn’t already make you unintelligible with nonsensical terms, I can help.

Before I regale you with the delights of my wisdom, let me say I spent much of my first six years justifying and acting defensive about everything I did as a teacher. To my principal, I defended my use of paper. (She said one of my students was allergic and that I should remove paper stapled to my walls. I asked if I should remove notebook paper from the class overall. She shook her head as if I were unreasonable.) To the vitriolic chatterboxes populating cable news channels and all the personal insecurities hanging on from adolescence, I defended my competence. To my mother, who to this day believes teachers are over-compensated for their work, I defended my pay. I’m not used to being vulnerable.

You’re going to screw-up as a new teacher. You are! Let’s be okay with that, and let’s be okay with sharing our foibles and flaws. I think we’ll both grow that way. I’ll start, if for no other reason than to leave a few tracks where I’m not supposed to go.


When you ‘like’ the Magical Teacher Facebook page, ed-related inspiration shows up in your FB feed automatically. Much of the content is original writing and art by REAL TEACHERS like you—teachers from public and private schools, elementary and middle and high schools, community colleges and four-year universities.

Does that excite you as much as it does me?

I knew it! (Okay, there might also be some silly viral videos—FILTERS, PEOPLE, FILTERS!—but that’s because snorting and howling with the Laugh of Recognition is vital and necessary for crazy people to do, especially when the crazy people spend many hours meditating on the important nature of their craft.)

If you don’t yet like Magical Teacher, click here to stay up-to-date, optimistic, and grounded. I promise you, it’s not some footprints-in-the-sand allegory.

Your friend & co-conspirator in scheming,



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 51 other followers